January 1, 2008

“When the stage of the immediate disaster relief is over, the media, the celebrities and even most of the donors are gone,” Dr. Yehudah Paz, chairman of the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development (NISPD), said last week.

Not so the NISPD, one of several Israeli organizations that initiated a program to assist Sri Lankan cooperatives to get back on their feet after the 2004 tsunami ruined their livelihood.

Three years have passed since the Asian tsunami hit the shores of the Indian Ocean, leaving in its wake over 250,000 dead, 125,000 injured and almost two million homeless.

On December 26, 2004, an earthquake, whose epicenter was Sumatra on Indonesia’s west coast, triggered a series of devastating tsunamis along the coasts of most landmasses bordering the Indian Ocean.

The 30-yard-high waves inundated coastal communities and caused the ninth-deadliest natural disaster in modern history. The tsunami’s most severe effects were felt in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and Myanmar.

Months after the water had subsided, international aid in the form of food, water, and medical aid and relief was still being channeled to the devastated communities.
During the first year, money was sent from all over the world to restore ruined houses and community buildings. That year, projects intended to help get the locals’ lives back on track were started almost every day.

Many were on hand to cover the memorial ceremonies that took place on the first anniversary of the disaster.

“There is an entire world of disaster relief, and whenever an international catastrophe occurs there is an important stage of rescuing, feeding and sheltering, to which the international community recruits itself,” Paz told The Jerusalem Post.

“After the emergency period, the international community and the volunteers tend to disappear. Then, the residents must start a rebuilding and reconstruction phase, economically and physically, and we… try to help with this vital but less ‘sexy’ part of the job,” Paz said.

The NISPD works closely in Sri Lanka with the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), an umbrella organization of the world’s cooperatives and the largest non-governmental organization in the world.

A few months after the tsunami, NISPD representatives arrived in Sri Lanka with a plan to rebuild ruined businesses by establishing an educational business program.

B’nai B’rith International joined this effort, with envoys that were at first busy providing Sri Lankan survivors with food and rebuilding their houses, and later helped finance and coordinate the NISPD program.

The third participant in the Israeli-Jewish humanitarian collaboration is the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which funded most of the activity and allocated $300,000 for the entire project. IsraAID – the Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid – served as the overall coordinator.

The four organizations contacted the ICA in Sri Lanka, which has six million members in the disaster-stricken country. Over the past three years, the groups have worked with the cooperative movement in Sri Lanka, training 1,500 business managers of agricultural, tourist and retail cooperatives that were damaged in the tsunami. These business managers reach out to thousands of small businesses and merchants in southern Sri Lanka.

“The purpose was not to rebuild what was ruined, but to use this disaster as an opportunity to promote these cooperatives and the local economy,” Rafi Goldman, director of the International Center for Cooperative Studies, a division of the NISPD, told the Post.

Goldman has monitored the program closely for the last three years and visits southwest Sri Lanka, the area that sustained the worst damage, several times a year. Currently, over 100 new business plans have been developed by the local managers and are being examined by Sri Lankan banks, whose managements have agreed to prioritize these plans.

Aside from the problem of money and volunteers that disappear shortly after disaster relief work is over, Goldman points to a lesser-known problem.

“Much of the assistance that is given creates dependency. People just wait for other people to solve their problems. This, as well as the need for more long-term relief projects, needs to be taken into consideration,” Goldman said. “Our project, with its focus on economic advance based on self-help, addresses this issue directly,” he added.

Through the Foreign Ministry, Israel has sent sent medication, water, food, equipment, and other supplies to Sri Lanka. Professional rescue crews, mainly from voluntary organizations such as Magen David Adom, Latet, assisted in field efforts.

“Sri Lanka deals with a complicated situation that is reminiscent of the one in Israel. It’s busy handling an internal battle against terror attacks by the Tamil rebels from the North who want independence and is trying to develop [its] tourism industry, but every time another terror attack is executed, there is a regression in their efforts,” a Foreign Ministry official told the Post.

The official also revealed that Israel had offered its assistance out of a belief that this would help warm political relations with neighboring India, which rejected outside aid.

(Reprinted with permission from The Jerusalem Post)

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